“We were going to Cuba, and Mr. Laquis’ father said: ‘No, you are going to Trinidad. English law.’ So, he write a letter to Mr. Ayoub Sabga, saying, ‘Mr. Sabga, this family coming, we know them, I want you to look after them! I was having my first boy on the travel, on the ship, when we were in the Madeira water. I was 16. We come to Marseilles but I couldn’t have time to have the baby over there, so he was born on the ship. In Trinidad, ship stay far away in deep water, so you had a boat to bring us on the land. So they came to meet us, Mr. Abdou Sabga, and Ayoub Sabga. Only seven days I have the baby! They wanted me to go down a big ladder, and when Ayoub Sabga come, he said: ‘What is that?’ My husband said: ‘My wife had a baby.’ So Ayoub Sabga said: ‘Well, this will be my godchild.’”
Rahmé Hajal’s memories, so similar to the memories of virtually all the Arabs who came to these islands at the beginning of the twentieth century, contains a story of choice. To leave the ancestral village in Syria or to stay. To go to America, and the entire continent was America, was to take a monumental leap into the unknown. It also contains the essence of the community’s success in Trinidad and Tobago, the help and support that were so readily given to the immigrants by those who had come before. Yet, these survivors of another crossing, notwithstanding the drawbacks of language and poverty, loneliness and alienation, and against the backdrop of the worldwide recession that was crippling growth and progress at the end of the Great War, were able to survive, put down roots and prosper in a strange land.
They came mostly from the mountain villages and hamlets of south-western Syria, from Anaz, Ish Shooha, Bsas, Shmeisi and the valley of the Christians. They were all Christian: Greek Orthodox from Syria, and Lebanese Christians belonging mostly to the Maronite Catholic Church.
Rose Abraham remembers that she was born in Lebanon, “. . . near to where the big ruins are. I went to a school called St. Joseph de l’Apparition. My parents ran a silk factory.” They were forced to leave because of the introduction of artificial silk. Anthony Sabga recalls, “I came to Port of Spain at a critical time in the life of any child. I was seven years old . . . Because of the language barrier, I faltered in school and never caught up.” Yet today Anthony Sabga, now at the great age of ninety-two, is one of the Caribbean’s foremost industrialists.
One of the earliest immigrants to Trinidad was Elias Ibrahim Galy. His family lived in the town of Macheta Azar, Tel Kalah, in Syria. Galy was born in 1889. At the age of 21, he left his elder brother, his three sisters and his parents and came to Trinidad. He came from an environment where trade and commerce had flourished for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Trading ran in his veins. Elias Galy and his friend Elias Abraham Aboud were bound for the French islands, this because they had a little French. They, however, overslept, Albert Hadeed believes that they had been seasick, and were not discovered until the ship had arrived in Port of Spain. Coming ashore, they wandered into the city and discovered that many of its merchants spoke French and that the coffee was delicious. They missed the boat’s departure, stayed on and became peddlers. The French merchant who had first befriended them gave them matches to sell, cards of pins, coloured thread and buttons. They travelled across the country to small towns with strange names like Tunapuna, Arouca, Chaguanas, Arima. When their goods were not sold out on the market days, they slept in railway stations or beneath awnings and the following day went from house to house. These were men without wives. But, not for long.
For some it began with wedding bells, congratulations and sweets and delicacies, “I was a Maronite. My husband was Orthodox, and I married in the Orthodox church. We became Catholic here. . .” Rose Abraham relates. In the sepia-toned photographs you can still see them as they were: beautiful Syrian and Lebanese women, almost child brides, young teenagers, barely acquainted with life and with their husbands. Many families had to endure years of separation before they became reunited. For all it was work. As the men took to the countryside, riding the trains to the distant villages the women sewed. They made children’s clothes and men’s shirts to be sold by their husbands. They lived a communal life, sharing what they had and nursing each other’s children.
At first, they lived in the oldest parts of the city. It was an attractive Caribbean town. Still a British colony, Trinidad, because of its history, possessed a cosmopolitan population. In the noisy, bustling market one could hear French, English, Spanish, even German and of course, the local French Patois. All around were Indians, whose ancestors or they themselves had come as indentured workers, Chinese, some still wearing pigtails, Portuguese hucksters and the local Africans dressed in gorgeous prints.
Chickens, vultures, dogs and goats competed in the noise of the raucous West Indian capital, which was not unlike the bazaars and marketplaces of the Middle East. Trams, hackneys, carriages and cabs filled the streets crowded with pedestrians, bicycle riders and the first motorcars. It was a prosperous island actually—its economy, based on the export of sugar and cocoa, coffee and citrus, would soon be augmented by the discovery of oil in considerable quantity.
For the Arabs, not yet a community, it was Yussef and Rahme Sabga who helped a great many of the newly arrived to start in Port of Spain. Often, Yussef would put up the bond required by the immigration authorities for a newcomer, and the Sabga house on Charlotte Street was a welcome first haven for a great many Arabs whose descendants became Trinidadians and Tobagonians. Rahme Sabga is believed to be the first Arab woman peddler in Trinidad. Today she is commemorated on a one dollar postage stamp of the independent Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.
In the 1950s, the women of Trinidad and Tobago’s Arab community organised themselves into a charitable organisation, calling it the ‘Mediterranean Star’ (later to be renamed ‘Syrian Lebanese Women’s Association of Trinidad and Tobago’). Within the framework of this association, which celebrates its 64th anniversary in 2015, the women of the Arab community have rendered help and support to the underprivileged, the disabled and the destitute. They have organised highly successful fund-raisers for local charities as well as acted as a preservation agent for Middle Eastern cultural expressions such as Arabic food, music, dancing and the retention of family traditions.
Today, the Arab community’s contribution to the building of modern Trinidad and Tobago may be seen in the businesses created by them. These comprise the dry-goods stores started by their parents and grandparents and include the industries owned and operated by them. Amongst these are breweries, brick factories, newspapers, radio and television stations and some of the finest restaurants in this part of the world. They have actively taken part in the politics of their adopted home and have contributed, at times startlingly, to its eclectic culture.
The Syrian and Lebanese community was the last ethnic group to have come to Trinidad in the 20th century. The people from the Middle East had the challenge to integrate into Trinidad’s society when the island’s status as British Crown Colony was slowly coming to an end. From this community came outstanding businessmen and women, legal and medical professionals, artists and many, many other professionals—one might say they, the Arab community, have successfully taken part in the forming of our nation!
Gerard Besson, “The Syrians and The Lebanese of Trinidad,” The Book of Trinidad. (Port-of-Spain: Paria Publishing Company, 1992)
Alice Besson and Gerard Besson, The Voyage of the Mediterranean Star: The Syrian Lebanese Women’s Association of Trinidad & Tobago. (St. Clair: SLWA, 2001)
Interviews with Anthony Sabga, and conversations with Albert Hadeed and Joe Sabga.